Congenitally Self-Centered

The Metamorphosis of Narcissus. Salvador Dali, 1937.

From time to time, I ask myself why I write. I’m not obsessed with the question; at least, I don’t think I am. However, I do feel that I ought to have some idea of why I spend so much time writing. I have answers for why I do most of the things I do. Why don’t I have one for why I write? I take the leash off the hook in the hallway closet, for example, because I plan to take the dog for a walk. I heat water in the morning to make a cup of coffee. If my wife finds me searching for an umbrella, it’s because I’m going out and rain is predicted. In the last example, if my wife were to ask me why I wanted an umbrella, and I told her I didn’t know, she would have reason to believe I’m not well. And she’d be correct. Yet, I can’t explain why I write.

Although I don’t have an answer to my writing question, I’ve examined several possibilities. I have identified a few that I can comfortably say are not reasons I write. For example, as far as I know, I do not write for therapy. Writing can be used for therapeutic purposes, and to good effect, but it’s not why I write.

Nor do I write because I feel that I have to; that writing is who I am, that it defines me. I once knew an orchestra conductor who told me that dancers are the only performing artists in his opinion who would work for free. He did not say this negatively. On the contrary, he was amazed by the dedication of ballet dancers to their art. They danced, he said, because they had to. William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. To say that Faulkner was a devoted servant of his art would be a tremendous understatement. He once said: “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one…. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” (From Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews [1959]). I’m reasonably confident that when my mother was living, I would not have robbed her to write a single word.

Finally, I don’t write to make a living. Although I’ve been paid for some pieces I’ve written, I’ve never written anything for money. Anyhow, I don’t do the kind of writing that pays. In the novel Get Shorty, by the late Elmore Leonard, Harry Limm, a film producer, says he once asked a literary agent what kind of writing earned the most money. The agent replied, “ransom notes.” There’s a world of truth in that simple statement. My father, of blessed memory, told me never to work at something I love because then something I love becomes work. As an undergraduate majoring in piano, I once had an opportunity to meet a famous American classical pianist. In the course of our conversation, he confided in me that he had not recorded a single thing he wanted to for ten years. The reason was he needed money, and what he wanted to record didn’t sell. He found himself in the unenviable position of recording music that he would have preferred not to, only because it sold well.

So, I don’t write for therapy, or because I need to, or for money. The question remains, why do I write? To help me better understand my writing motivation, I’ve looked at what some other writers have said concerning their reasons for writing. In his essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell identifies what he calls “four great motives for writing.” They are “sheer egoism,” “aesthetic enthusiasm,” “historical impulse,” and “political purpose.”

I got an uncomfortable feeling while reading Orwell’s essay. I fear that much of the writing I do is motivated by what he calls “sheer egoism.” Orwell claims authors writing from egoism “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death.” [Orwell, George. Essays (Penguin Modern Classics) (p. 3). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.] It is “humbug,” he says, for a writer to pretend that egoism is not a motive. It may be humbug to deny it, but to me, at least, it sounds undignified to say that one writes to appear smart or be talked about. Here is an interview excerpt with Orwell, just over a minute, in which he answers some questions concerning why he wrote. After listening to this, I didn’t feel any better.

E. B. White, in the Foreward to his Essays of E. B. White, speaking specifically of essayists, supports Orwell’s claim concerning egoism as artistic motivation.

The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest. He is a fellow who thoroughly enjoys his work, just as people who take bird walks enjoy theirs. Each new excursion of the essayist, each new “attempt,” differs from the last and takes him into new country. This delights him. Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.

White, E. B.. Essays of E. B. White. Harper Perennial. Kindle Edition.

“Congenitally self-centered!” That’s a tough thing to admit. In another place, however, White says something noble about a writer’s purpose.

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter…. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.

“The Art of the Essay, No. 1, E. B. White,” interview with George A. Plimpton and Frank H. Crowther, Fall 1969; Paris Review, Issue 48.

“He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down.” Now, that’s something worth doing.

If you are a writer, and you understand why you write, that’s great! There is something powerful in understanding your motives. But if you don’t know why you write, do it anyway. It won’t hurt you, and it may well prove beneficial to the rest of us. I’m grateful to both Orwell and White for what they wrote, no matter why they wrote it.

All the best,
Gershon

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